Category Archives: Wisdom

The Wisdom of Anthony de Mello: Enlightenment

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomAnthony de Mello (1931-1987) was an Indian Jesuit priest, spiritual teacher, psychotherapist, writer, and public speaker. He founded the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling in Poona, India in 1972. Fr. de Mello earned international acclaim for his profound spiritual insights, via the mystical traditions of East and West, and his unique approach to the inner life. He was best known for his mesmerizing storytelling — using insightful stories, parables, and humor — as well spiritual exercises to lead people to greater awareness (self-discovery), helping them to be more in touch with their body, sensations, and living life more fully. Fr. de Mello believed that humanity could learn from every religious tradition. In his stories, when he speak of the Master, he is not just referring to Jesus, following the Catholic/Christian tradition; de Mello writes “He is a Hindu Guru, a Zen Roshi, A Taoist Sage, a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Monk, a Sufi Mystic. He is a Lao-Tau and Socrates. Buddha and Jesus, Zarathustra and Mohammed. His teaching  is found in the seventh century B.C. and the twentieth century A.D. His wisdom belongs to East and West alike.” Remarkably, the Catholic Church did not appreciate this synthesis of East and West, especially the consideration of Jesus as a master alongside many others (particularly the Buddha, which de Mello respected a great deal), the promotion of other spiritual works other than the Bible, and the belief that you didn’t need religion to achieve self-discovery and enlightenment. (Interestingly, there are significant similarities between the beliefs of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, mystic, theologian, scholar of comparative religion, and author of The Seven Story Mountain, and de Mello.) Consequently — and rather ironically considering that Jesus taught in parables and also broke with the traditions and thinking of his time — the Catholic Church condemned his writings. Unfortunately, this had an unintended consequence: it increased the sale and publications of his work (20+) — many which were published posthumously. Here is an excerpt from One Minute Wisdom, published in 1985), entitled “Enlightenment.”

The Master was an advocate both of learning and of Wisdom.

“Learning,” he said when asked, “is gotten by reading books or listening to lectures.”

“And Wisdom?”

“By reading the book that is you.”

He added as an afterthought: “It is not an easy task at all, for every minute of the day brings a new edition of the book!”

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Read related posts: The Wisdom of a Grandmother
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For further reading: One Minute Wisdom by Anthony de Mello
Taking Flight by Anthony de Mello
The Heart of the Enlightened by Anthony de Mello
http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/cdfdemel.htm
http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/galileo-is-convicted-of-heresy


The Wisdom of Anime Characters

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomWhere can wisdom can be found? Certainly one can turn to the Bible and literature in general to find timeless wisdom. However, these great books do not have a monopoly on wisdom. If you look carefully enough, you can find wisdom in some of the most unlikely places — like anime (Japanese animated films). Yes — some anime characters can actually shed some light on life and the human condition. The anime-obsessed folks at Daily Infographic reviewed all the classics searching for that wisdom that is deserving of a wider audience. Here are some of the anime characters and the life advice they share:

Iron (Avatar the Last Airbender): “It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.”

Makoto Konno (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time): “You don’t get to choose when or who you meet. However, you do get to choose who you hold onto.”

Jiraiya (Naruto): “Knowing what it feels to be in pain is exactly why we try to be kind to others.”

Mewtwo (Pokemon: the First Movie): “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

Ging Freecss (Hunter X Hunter): “You should enjoy the little detours to the fullest, because that’s where you will find things more important than what you want.”

Simon (Gurren Lagaan): “We evolve beyond the person that we were a minute before. Little by little, we advance with each turn.”

Vash the Stampeded (Trigun): “It is a virtue to devote one’s self to something, firmly believing in one’s own ideals. But that does not mean it’s alright to belittle the ideals or feelings of others.”

Edward Elric (Fullmetal Alchemist): “A lesson without pain is meaningless, for you cannot gain something without sacrificing something else in return. But once you have recovered it and made it your own… you will gain an irreplaceable Fullmetal heart.”

The Baron (The Cat Returns): “Whenever someone creates something with all of their heart, then that creation is given a soul.”

Ymir (Attack on Titan): “Do you always want to live hiding behind the mask you put up for the sake of others? You’re you — and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Wisdom of a Grandmother
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The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

For further reading: https://www.dailyinfographic.com/38-anime-characters-that-give-surprisingly-great-life-advice?utm_source=feedburner&utm


Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIn early February 1950, Dr. Robert Marcus of New York City was absolutely devastated by the loss of his eleven-year-old son who had succumbed to polio. Interestingly, Marcus, who was a Rabbi, did not reach out to his rabbinic mentors and friends, but rather to Albert Einstein, a legendary man of science, who was also a father of two sons. As you read Marcus’ eloquent and emotional letter, you cannot help but feel the profound depth of his anguish. And if you are a parent, you will find yourself fighting back tears — there is no greater grief than that of a parent who loses a young child. Marcus asks the famous physicist if perhaps immortality may be found in the scientific principle of energy conservation:

Dear Dr. Einstein,

Last summer my eleven-year-old son died of Polio. He was an unusual child, a lad of great promise who verily thirsted after knowledge so that he could prepare himself for a useful life in the community. His death has shattered the very structure of my existence, my very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings. I have tried during the past months to find comfort for my anguished spirit, a measure of solace to help me bear the agony of losing one dearer than life itself — an innocent, dutiful, and gifted child who was the victim of such a cruel fate. I have sought comfort in the belief that man has a spirit which attains immortality — that somehow, somewhere my son lives on in a higher world…

What would be the purpose of the spirit if with the body it should perish… I have said to myself: “It is a law of science that matter can never be destroyed; things are changed but the essence does not cease to be… Shall we say that matter lives and the spirit perishes; shall the lower outlast the higher?

I have said to myself: “Shall we believe that they have gone out of life in childhood before the natural measure of their days was full have been forever hurled into the darkness of oblivion? Shall we believe that the millions who have died the death of martyrs for truth, enduring the pangs of persecution have utterly perished? Without immortality the world is a moral chaos…

I write you all this because I have just read your volume The World as I See It. On page 5 of that book you stated: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension… such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.” And I inquire in a spirit of desperation, is there in your view no comfort, no consolation for what has happened? Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child… has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death? Is there nothing to assuage the pain of an unquenchable longing, an intense craving, an unceasing love for my darling son?

May I have a word from you? I need help badly.

Sincerely yours, Robert S. Marcus

A few days later, on February 12, Einstein responded to Dr. Marcus, a complete stranger, with a brief (consisting of only 78 words), but thought-provoking letter of comfort:

Dear Dr. Marcus:

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

With my best wishes, sincerely yours, Albert Einstein

Einstein relates to this heart-broken father that only religion, not science, can provide the promise, the gift of immortality. What science can provide, which may provide some level of comfort to this father’s heartache, is the concept of “oneness of the universe” — the idea that everything in the universe is one — we and everything in the universe is made of stardust. In her fascinating book, Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, Naomi Levy reflects on Einstein’s response: “Einstein offered Rabbi Marcus and all of us a vision of heaven on earth. Did Einstein’s words bring some measure of comfort to Rabbi Marcus’s broken heart? I’d like to believe that Rabbi Marcus did receive solace from Einstein’s words, but we’ll never know for sure… When you seek out a man like Einstein for inquiries about the soul, you are bound to get an answer that is out of the ordinary.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby
The Memory of a Departed Friend

How to Grieve for a Departed Friend
The Wisdom or the Ancient Greeks
Best Poems for Funerals: When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou
Best Books on Eulogies
High Flight: Touching the Face of God
In Mourning the Heart Does Not Forget

For further reading: Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul by Naomi Levy
Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children by Alice Calaprice


The Black Hole and the Pale Blue Dot: the Humbling of Humanity

alex atkins bookshelf cultureOn April 10, 2019, the world was mesmerized by the spectacular first-ever photo of a black hole, providing the first visual evidence that black holes actually exist. The black hole is located at the center of the galaxy named Messier 87 (M87), about 55 million light-years from Earth. The black hole has a mass equal to 6.5 billion times that of the sun. The photo was the result of a ten-year collaboration of more than 200 researchers using a global network of eight radio telescopes, known as the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT), to combine all their observations and data (5,000 trillion bytes over two weeks) in a supercomputer to create the virtual image. Shepard Doeleman, director of the EHT, proudly proclaimed: “We have seen what we thought was unseeable.” This is truly a remarkable, monumental photo. But there is another stunning photo that we should not forget…

Five years ago, Avery Broderick, a theoretical astrophysicist and a fellow member of the EHT, remarked that the first picture of a black hole could be just as important as a photo known as the “Pale Blue Dot.” That photo, taken almost 30 years ago has slipped from the public’s collective memory. But it shouldn’t — because that photo is a truly remarkable technical and astronomical achievement. Let’s take a trip back into time, going back 42 years ago…

Way back on September 5, 1977, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched by NASA aboard a Titan IIIE rocket. The space probe was designed to study the outer solar system, flying by Jupiter, Saturn, and then flying through the heliosphere, and eventually into interstellar space. At a speed of about 38,027 mph, the intrepid Voyager 1 covered a distance of about 325 million miles per year. And remarkably — 37 years later — the spacecraft is still sending data to NASA (messages from more than 12 trillion miles away take about 17 hours to reach Earth). Back in 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan, who was a member of the Voyager’s imaging team, persuaded NASA to send commands to turn the spacecraft’s camera around to take one last photo of the Earth from the edge of the solar system (at a distance of about 3.7 billion miles away). The final image shows the Earth as a mere speck (less than 1 pixel) suspended in a brownish band of light, surrounded by the blackness of space.

The spectacular photo inspired Sagan to reflect eloquently on the significance of life on this tiny planet, a pale blue dot, dwarfed by the mind-boggling vastness of the cosmos: “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

These two photos — the first-ever black hole of M87 and the Pale Blue Dot — could not be more different, occurring at such amazingly different chapters in the history of the world, but they are a singular and profound reminder of just how insignificant our existence is in the context of an infinite, ever-expanding cosmos. And as we ponder these photos, signifying our place in the universe, one cannot escape the overwhelming sense of humility that they elicit.

Read related posts: How Fast is the Earth Moving?
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?

For further reading: Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books (1997)
Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ballantine Books (2013)
Universe by Robert Dinwiddle, Philip Eales, David Hughes, and Iain Nicolson, DK (2012)
http://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/magazine/how-do-you-take-a-picture-of-a-black-hole-with-a-telescope-as-big-as-the-earth.html
http://www.cnn.com/2019/04/10/world/black-hole-photo-scn/index.html

 


The Most Important Thing in Life is the Journey

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom“If you look back on your life when you were a child, and you had aspirations, and you had ambitions, but they never really worked out the way you thought they would. So there’s a lot that can make you extremely frustrated and extremely mad. But at the same time, it’s kind of exhilirating. In many ways, it doesn’t matter if things work out exactly the way you wanted them to or they didn’t. The most important thing is the journey. Because the experiences can be so rich and so valuable to you… Of course, I am [happy with the journey so far]. It’s been amazing so far. The best way I could think of, you know, leaving this world, and it would be either, you know, go to sleep and not wake up or be in the middle of… a telecine suite doing a new transfer, like a 4k or an 8k tranfer of [2001: A Space Odyssey]. Just as the music play out, I’d say, ‘I’m coming. — I’m with ya, Zarathustra.'”

Leon Vitali from the documentary about his life: Filmworker by Tony Zierra. Vitali was a successful British actor who in 1974 walked away from acting, and spent a lot of time away from his family, to become legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s apprentice and right-hand man for more than 25 years. Vitali, credited as “personal assistant to director,” worked alongside “the maestro” on cinematic masterpieces like The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Since Kubrick’s death in 1999, Vitali has overseen the restoration of all of Kubrick’s films. Currently, Vitali has been working as a consultant to the Kubrick estate. Recently, he has been supervising a new digital 4k version of 2001: A Space Odysssey. He is also working on creating a comprehensive archive of all of Stanley Kubrick’s film elements.

Steve Southgate, the vice president in charge of European technical operations for Warner Brothers who had worked on most of Kubrick’s films watched the apprentice transform into a master: “Leon was a spirit. You could see, you know, the doors open before he got to a door. He has this aura of ‘Kubrickism’ around him. The apprentice that all of a sudden one day became the master with all the answers.” Southgate had enormous respect for Kubrick: “He was one person in the film industry who knew how the film industry worked — in every country in the world. He knew all of the dubbing people, the dubbing directors, the actors, he had relationships with foreign directors who would supervise his work because he couldn’t be there to supervise himself. We had to go around to every cinema to make sure the projection lights were right, the sound was correct, the ratios were right, the screens were clean… He seemed to work 24 hours a day. We used to get calls all hours of the night. He could be very difficult but not in a difficult way. If you ever got chewed out by Stanley on the phone you knew you’d been chewed out. He never screamed or yelled but he had this wonderful manner and a sort of lovely New York drawl to his voice that you knew you were being carpeted. If he had any criticism of his film, he took it terribly personally. It was body and soul to him.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/19990704mag-kubrick-profile.html


Regardless of Religion, Ideology, or Politics — Everyone Appreciates Kindness and Compassion

alex atkins bookshelf booksSome of the greatest treasures in a used bookstore are often found in the most unlikely places. These books are easy to miss because they have been misplaced or are tucked away behind a dusty stack of books — forlorn or forgotten for months, years, even decades. Recently, I came across a copy of The Dalai Lama, A Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writings by and About the Dalai Lama in mint condition — something rare for paperback books of this age. According to the bookseller’s penciled notation, the book was acquired in 2012. This amazingly brilliant and insightful book had been lurking in the shadows for more than 7 years. Hard to believe. But now that book found a home, and with this post, a wider audience. Although the book was published in 1990, it as relevant today as it was almost two decades ago. In his speech titled “Kindness and Compassion, the Dalai Lama, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, challenges us to overlook our differences in religion, ideology, race, politics, economics, and embrace what we all share as human beings: the pursuit of happiness, and need for kindness, and compassion. He offers us hope in a new religion — one that doesn’t require temples and complex history, but simply the philosophy of kindness, straight from the heart. Here are some highlights of that memorable and inspiring speech.”

“I want to speak to you this evening about the importance of kindness and compassion. When I speak about this, I regard myself not as a Buddhist, not as the Dalai Lama, not as a Tibetan, but rather as one human being. And, I hope that you in the audience will, at this moment, think of yourselves as human beings rather than as Americans, or Westerners, or members of any particular group. These things are secondary. If from my side and from the listeners’ side we interact as human beings, we can reach this basic level. If I say, ‘I am a monk;’ or ‘I am a Buddhist;’ these are, in comparison to my nature as a human being, temporary. To be a human is basic. Once you are born as a human being, that cannot change until death. Other things — whether you are educated or uneducated, rich or poor — are secondary.

Today we face many problems. Some are created essentially by ourselves based on divisions due to ideology, religion, race, economic status, or other factors. Therefore, the time has come for us to think on a deeper level, onthe human level, and from that level we should appreciate and respect the sameness of others as human beings. We must build closer relationships of mutual trust, understanding, respect, and help, irrespective of differences of culture, philosophy, religion, or faith.

After all, all human beings are the same — made of human flesh, bones, and blood. We all want happiness and want to avoid suffering. Further, we all have an equal right to be happy. In other words, it is important to realize our sameness as human beings. We all belong to one human family. That we quarrel with each other is due to secondary reasons, and all of this arguing with each other, cheating each other, suppressing each other is of no use.

Unfortunately, for many centuries, human beings have used all sorts of methods to suppress and hurt one another. Many terrible things have been done. It has meant more problems, more suffering, and more mistrust,resulting in more feelings of hatred and more divisions…

All of us want happiness. In cities, on farms, even in remote places, people are busy and active. What is the main purpose of this activity? Everyone is trying to create happiness. To do so is right. However, it is very important to follow a correct method in seeking happiness. We must keep in mind that too much involvement on a superficial level will not solve the larger problems.

There are all about us many crises, many fears. Through highly developed science and technology, we have reached an advanced level of material progress that is both useful and necessary. Yet, if you compare the external progress with our internal progress, it is quite clear that our internal progress is inadequate. In many countries, crises — murders, wars and terrorism — are chronic. People complain about the decline in morality and the rise in criminal activity. Although in external matters we are highly developed and continue to progress, at the same time it is equally important to develop and progress in terms of inner development….

Anger cannot be overcome by anger. If a person shows anger to you, and you respond with anger, the result is disastrous. In contrast, if you control anger and show opposite attitudes — compassion, tolerance, and patience — then not only do you yourself remain in peace, but the other’s anger will gradually diminish.

World problems similarly cannot be challenged by anger or hatred. They must be faced with compassion, love, and true kindness. Look at all the terrible weapons there are. Yet, the weapons themselves cannot start a war. The button to trigger them is under a human finger, which moves by thought, not under its own power. The responsibility rests in our thought.

If you look deeply into such things, the blueprint is found within — in the mind — out of which actions come. Thus, first controlling the mind is very important. I am not talking here about controlling the mind in the sense of deep meditation, but just about cultivating less anger, more respect for others’ rights, more concern for other people, more clear realization of our sameness as human beings… Rather than just advertising to make money for ourselves, we need to use these media for something meaningful, something seriously directed towards the welfare of humankind. Not money alone. Money is necessary, but the actual purpose of money is for human beings. Sometimes we lose interest in the human and are just concerned about money. This is not sensible.

After all, we all want happiness, and no one will disagree with the fact that with anger, peace is impossible. With kindness and love, peace of mind can be achieved. No one wants anger, no one wants mental unrest, yet because of ignorance, they occur. Bad attitudes, such as depression, arise from the power of ignorance, not of their own accord.

Through anger we lose one of the best human qualities — the power of judgement. We have a good brain, which other mammals do not have, allowing us to judge what is right and what is wrong, not only in terms of today’s concerns, but considering ten, twenty, or even a hundred years in the future. Without any precognition, we can use our normal common sense to determine if something is a right or wrong method; we can decide that if we do such and such, it will lead to such and such — effect. However, once our mind is occupied by anger we lose this power of judgement, and once lost, it is very sad. Physically you are a human being, but mentally you are incomplete. Given that we have this physical human form, we must safeguard our mental capacity for judgement. For that, we cannot take out insurance; the insurance company is within: self-discipline, self-awareness, and a clear realization of the disadvantages of anger and the positive effects of kindness. Thinking about this again and again, we can become convinced of it, and then with self-awareness, we can control the mind.

For instance, at present you may be a person who gets quickly and easily irritated by small things. With clear understanding and awareness, this can be controlled. If you usually remain angry for ten minutes, try to reduce it to eight. Next week make it five minutes and the next month two. Then make it zero. That is how to develop and train our minds.

This is my feeling and also the sort of practice I myself do. It is quite clear that everyone needs peace of mind. The question, then, is how to achieve it. Through anger we cannot; through kindness, through love, through compassion, we can achieve one individual’s peace of mind. The result of this is a peaceful family — happiness between parents and children, fewer quarrels between husband and wife; no worry about divorce. Extended to the national level, this attitude can bring unity, harmony, and cooperation with genuine motivation. On the international level, we need mutual trust, mutual respect, frank and friendly discussion with sincere motivation, and joint effort to solve world problems. All these are possible.

But first we must change within ourselves. Our national leaders try their best to solve our problems, but when one problern is solved, another one crops up; trying to solve that, again there is another somewhere else. The time has come to try a different approach. Of course, it is very diffiicult to achieve such a worldwide movement for peace of mind, but it is the only alternative. If there were another method that was easier and more practical, it would be better, but there is none….

Therefore, although it is difficult to attempt to bring about peace through internal transformation, this is the only way to achieve lasting world peace. Even if during my own lifetime it is not achieved, it is all right. More human beings will come, the next generation and the one after that, and progress can continue. I feel that despite the practical difficulties and the sense that this is regarded as an unrealistic view, it is worthwhile to make the attempt. Therefore, wherever I go, I express these things. I am encouraged that peoplefrom different walks of life generally receive it well.

Each of us has a responsibility for all humankind. It is time for us to think of other people as true brothers and sisters and to be concerned with their welfare, with lessening their suffering. Even if you cannot sacrifice your own benefit entirely, you should not forget the concerns of others. We should think more about the future and benefit of all humanity.

Also, if you try to subdue your selfish motives — anger, and so forth — and develop more kindness and compassion for others, ultimately you yourself will benefit more than you would otherwise. So sometimes I say that the wise selfish person should practice this way. Foolish selfish people are always thinking of themselves, and the result is negative. Wise selfish people think of others, help others as much as they can, and the result is that they too receive benefit.

This is my simple religion — there is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks

The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel


What is the Meaning of the Feather in Forrest Gump?

alex atkins bookshelf moviesIn the opening sequence of the 1994 film Forrest Gump, we are mesmerized by a feather that floats downward from the clouds, caught in a gentle breeze — swirling and spinning delicately like some ethereal dancer. Eventually the feather reaches the ground, and is swept across a street by the motion of cars, landing at the foot of the film’s slow-witted but kind protagonist, Forrest Gump, who is sitting on a bench waiting to catch a bus. It captures his attention; he reaches down and grabs it and gently places it inside his favorite book, Curious George, that his mother read to him when he was a child. Then at the conclusion of the film, that same feather falls out of this book (Gump has now given the book to his son) and the feather is lifted back into the clouds by a gentle breeze. So, immediately we ask: what is the meaning of the feather in Forrest Gump? As we shall soon see, the feather is the perfect symbol for this film that, thanks to the brilliant screenwriting efforts of Eric Roth, works as a fable wrapped around a sweet love story — as opposed to the biting satire and cynical tone of the original novel of the same name by Winston Groom. And like one of Shakespeare’s fools, Gump may be simple-minded and a source of amusement, but he possesses all the wisdom that those around him clearly lack.

Fortunately, if you haven’t figured it out by the end of the film, Gump tells us in his soft- and plain-spoken way. In the last scene of the film, Gump is in a reflective mood and in a voiceover, explains: “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it’s both.” And that is the central theme of this film: is life determined by fate or chance? In an interview, Tom Hanks, who played Gump, elaborates: “Our destiny is only defined by how we deal with the chance elements to our life and that’s kind of the embodiment of the feather as it comes in. Here is this thing that can land anywhere and that it lands at your feet. It has theological implications that are really huge.” Perhaps what Hanks actually meant to say was that the philosophical implications are huge. Some of the greatest philosophers, thinkers, and writers have grappled with that question and its implication of free will; that is to say, if our life is based on fate (determinism) or chance, do our choices matter? In the case of Gump, the answer is yes — it is chance and choice. It is perfectly summarized by the symbolism of the feather: even though the feather lands near him (chance), he notices it and picks it up (choice). And it is because he makes these choices, time after time, that he unwittingly plays a role in many defining events of the 20th century (teaching Elvis how to dance, reporting the Watergate break-in, inspiring the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine”, the creation of the iconic smiley face, coining the phrase “shit happens,” etc.). 

On another level, the feather, with their connection to birds, represents flight and freedom. It also represent hope and inspiration. In the poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson uses the feather as a central metaphor: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.” For many tribal priests and shamans, the feather represents ascension or prayer, representing the magical communication with gods or the spirit world.

In her fascinating blog, Symbolic Meaning of Feathers, Avia Venifica, who studies the work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, presents an in-depth exploration of the symbolism of feathers. Briefly, she discusses the feather as representing truth, spirit, travel, heaven, levity, flight, messages, ascension, and fertility. She also writes about the meaning of finding feathers, which is also relevant to the film. Venifica presents four meanings of finding a feather:

“1. Feathers are a reminder to count our blessings and be thankful for the good stuff going on in our lives.

2. Feathers are a symbol of levity. When seen, they remind us ease up on all the seriousness. Take a breath, relax, enjoy.

3. If feathers really are a communication tool to and from the gods, then their appearance is a reminder to listen to the bigger voice – as in a higher power.

4. Feathers often show up when there is someone or something that wants to reach out to us. Sometimes this might be a loved one who has passed into non-physical. A feather is a reminder you are loved by infinite people (both here on earth and otherwise).”

So is life determined by fate or chance? Some believe it is fate, others believe it is chance. Like Gump, many believe it is both? If you read enough biographies and have listen to the life stories of many people, you will realize that there is a common thread: serendipity. Someone was at the right place, at the right time, with the right person — and that has made a huge difference in their life journey, with respect to their education, career, or personal relationships (friendships, mentorships, and marriage). And herein lies one of the greatest life lessons: although you cannot create luck, propitious chance encounters — learn to identify serendipity and seize the opportunity.

The film, because it is a timeless fable, asks us one important question: if you are sitting on a bench and a feather floats by and rests near you, will you pick it up?

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Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?
What is the Meaning of Elton John’s Rocket Man?
What is the Meaning of Wax On, Wax Off?

For further reading: The Complete Dictionary of Symbols by Jack Tresidder
https://forrestgump227.wordpress.com/symbolism/
https://www.whats-your-sign.com/symbol-meaning-of-feathers.html


				

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